Iditarod XLVIII: 57 mushers are on their way to Nome
By Julie St. Louis
WILLOW– Under heavy snow showers, 57 dog mushers hit the trail Sunday afternoon for the 48th annual running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race – dubbed as the “last great race on earth.”
Competitors launched from Willow about 50 miles north of Anchorage on their 1,000-mile trek northwest to Nome.
The route follows the historical gold rush and mail trail, winding its way up and over 3,000-foot mountain passes in the Alaska and Kuskokwim Ranges, over frozen rivers and along windy stretches of Bering Sea ice.
The 2020 running of the world-famous race features domestic and international competitors from within Alaska, traditionally snowy states of Minnesota and Wisconsin as well as dog drivers who hail from Georgia and California. The international field includes five Canadians, three Norwegians, including the 2018 champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom, and one musher each from Denmark and Italy.
In addition to Ulsom, the race features defending champion Pete Kaiser from Bethel, two four-time winners – Lance Mackey and Martin Buser and a three-time champion, Mitch Seavey.
Two “hometown” Nome mushers are racing this year: Aaron Burmeister is racing his 19th Iditarod and Nils Hahn in his fifth.
In the last decade of racing the winner pulled their team under the famous burled arch finish line in Nome in about nine days, however record late season snowfalls along the entire route this year that is expected to slow the race down. Race officials describe difficulties trailbreaking with snow machines and drivers in chest-deep snow.
The race, first run in 1973, began as a way to honor and revive a traditional mode of transportation between remote communities where dog power was being rapidly replaced by snow machines in the 1960s.
The total prize purse is $500,000 with the expected top prize of $50,000 and a new truck.
Race and Staff Changes
There are no significant rule changes this year. Head race veterinarian Stuart Nelson said on the veterinary side they added a rating scale for overall dog body condition to assess changes in weight and overall health as the race progresses. The veterinarians at each checkpoint will be handling the dogs more and grading on a 9-point scale.
As far as the deeper snow at the race start Nelson said, “the dogs will be working a lot harder in the early part of the race pulling through more snow so that may mean some longer or more frequent rest times,” than in past years which saw less snow at the start and faster speeds.
The greatest changes to the race this year have been in leadership. Rob Urbach, former CEO of USA Triathalon, took over from 25-year Iditarod CEO Stan Hooley in July. Longtime race administrator Joanne Potts was asked to leave the race’s employ just prior to Urbach’s arrival.
The later caused a backlash among mushers, sponsors and race fans who say Potts has played an integral role in making sure mushers meet all the requirements to get to the starting line and always there with a ready answer to questions from the media and public.
Urbach spent six years at USA Triathalon in Colorado, a national governing body for the multi-discipline sport that includes running, biking and swimming. Previously to that he was executive vice president of global sports marketing firm Octagon.
Urbach has already taken a different approach leading Iditarod into a new decade by meeting with PETA executive vice president, Tracey Reiman, in Los Angeles in October. Urbach also brought four-time champion Jeff King and King’s dog Zig to the meeting. Past race leadership had always refused any get togethers. The meeting has not changed PETA’s stance and the group staged protests at the ceremonial start in Anchorage. Spokesperson for longtime race sponsor Anchorage Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram Chuck Talksy staged his own counter protest by walking up and down the start line with anti-PETA signs.
At the re-start in Willow Urbach walked up and down the start line with a microphone cheering and adding bits of color commentary on each musher as they left the race chute for the spectators.
While Potts was not working the events as in previous years, mushers and announcers made sure to make her presence known. Nome musher Aaron Burmeister used his allotted time during the pre-race bib draw banquet to bring Potts on stage to draw his number and recognize her decades of service to the race.
Burmeister presented Potts with a framed 1975 Iditarod finisher belt buckle representing the year she began helping with the race, first as a volunteer and in her final years as assistant to the race director. “Joanne Potts in appreciation for the years you have made sure each musher made it to the start line. Thank you,” states the engraved tribute under the framed belt buckle.
In other changes, Iditarod joins the Qrill Pet Arctic World Series that links with Minnesota’s John Bear Grease Race, Norway’s Femund Race and Russia’s Volga Quest.
Urbach hopes that joining the series will increase global exposure to the race. This year Qrill’s media team joins with the Iditarod Insider on covering aspects of the race. They also added their own GPS tracking systems to each sled so that international fans can follow the race progress online.
Sizing up the Competition and the Trail
Iditarod 2020 features 12 rookies and 45 veterans with the youngest competitor Laura Neese, 23, from Michigan and oldest, Jim Lanier, 79, from Chugiak, Alaska. Lanier will have run an Iditarod race in each of six decades with his 2020 start.
Defending champion, Kaiser, took both mother and father on a ride on his sled for the ceremonial start. Kaiser’s father Ron drove the tag sled and surprised his wife and Pete’s mother, Janet, by bidding on and winning the Iditarider spot in his sled for the 11-mile sled drive through Alaska’s largest city.
Kaiser is fresh off a Kuskokwim 300 win in mid-January. Kaiser and fellow Y-K Delta mushers are making a strong showing early in the race as they cross the Alaska Range. At the time of this writing Richie Diehl of Aniak, who finish third at the Kusko 300, had arrived first in Finger Lake checkpoint and while he rested Kaiser moved forward arriving first in Rainy Pass. Jessica Klejka is in 34th position.
Diehl said that half of his dog team are returning Iditarod veterans and those few that are younger and not race hardened “are a lot of fun” and he looked forward to getting on the trail with them. Despite not training in the deep snow, Diehl said he was not overly concerned and would just take things as they come explaining that weather and trail changes are all part of racing.
“I’m ready to go home,” said Burmeister as he was waiting for his turn to leave the start in Willow. Burmeister said he has nine veteran 6-year-olds and five first time 3-year-olds in his race team.
Burmeister splits his time between Nome and training in his Nenana kennel. He echoed the statements of most mushers about the snowier than normal trail. “We’ve all got to go across the same trail so will deal with it as we get there and I take one mile at time,” he said.
In a nod to race veteran and Unalakleet community leader, William “Middy” Johnson, who passed away unexpectedly in December, Burmeister pointed to a Bald eagle sitting on a tree above his race team, “that’s Middy Johnson in that tree there and he’s going to guide me to Nome.”
Also from Nome, Nils Hahn, is running a young team of 2-to 4-year-olds in his fifth Iditarod. Hahn and his wife Diana Haecker are publishers of this newspaper and also Mushing Magazine. They have one daughter, Lizzy, who was her father’s tag sled rider for the ceremonial start and guided his team to the re-start in Willow.
Hahn last ran the Iditarod in 2004 and said it will be different this time around since his kennel partner then, Ray Lang, retired and moved to Oregon, but he’s excited because he can now share the experience with his wife and daughter.
He said he also shares daily conversations about dogs with race veteran and legendary dog man Joe Garnie of Teller. Nearly all of the dogs in Hahn’s team are from Garnie bloodlines. Garnie came close to winning the 1986 Iditarod but was edged out by Susan Butcher who finished just 55 minutes ahead of Garnie.
“I’ve been planning and training for this for a long time,” Hahn said of this year’s race. “I’m looking forward to getting out on the trail and seeing what my team can do.”
He said this team has not seen a lot of travel or races but they have been training strong. Despite seeing record snow in Nome last year, Hahn said it was a different kind of snow than mushers were experiencing at the restart.
“I’ve never seen snow come straight down like this,” Hahn said. “In Nome it’s blowing and drifting snow with dogs punching through a crust on the trail, so it will be interesting to see how they handle this.”
Two mushers on the trail are finding themselves in the unexpected position to run a dog team to Nome when they didn’t plan on it. Sean Underwood races Jeff King’s dog team, as King had a medical emergency prior to the race that took him out of the running. Zoya deNure also experienced a sudden health issue the night before the restart and her husband John Schandelmeier is on the runners now.
Teams will follow the slightly shorter 975-mile northern route this year, as opposed to the 998-mile southern route.
According to Race Marshal Mark Nordman trail conditions are showing significant snow throughout the entire route. A trench-like trail at the restart across Willow Lake gave mushers a taste of the trail ahead.
Significant snowfall in Willow prompted officials to move the location of the start line up off the lake ice and on land next to the community center for the second year in a row.
The lake was safe for mushers to travel across but not advisable to park dog trucks and other vehicles on the ice as in past years given additional wet and heavy load of new snow, according to a statement from race officials.
The steady snowfall all day on Sunday made for tricky driving and nearly all dog trucks got stuck getting in and out of the parking areas before and after the restart. Dog trucks of some teams pulled pickups towing trailers of other teams out of the knee-deep snow.
So far the race is moving at a steady pace despite predictions that the snow would slow the race and make for a later finish when the winner is would pull their team under the famous burled arch finish line next Tuesday.